At Wolf Ranch

By: Jennifer Ryan

Ella slumped in the chair and wrapped her frozen hands around the mug, hoping that one day soon her insides would warm again and she’d feel something other than frozen fear and cold hate for her uncle.

Bev set a steaming bowl of soup in front of her and a plate of warm bread rolls with a plastic cup of butter. Ella slit the side of the roll and slathered butter inside to melt. She did the same with the second roll. By the time she scooped up a spoonful of the soup, the smell had started to work on her. One bite of the sinfully thick and rich, creamy concoction and she nearly felt human again. Her insides warmed. She took a big bite of the roll. Melted butter dripped down her chin. She wiped it away with her paper napkin and quietly worked her way through her meal, the loss of her sister keeping her head in a mind-numbing daze.

Finished, she looked around for the first time. Besides the seats at the counter facing the cooking area, a row of tables draped in red-and-white-checked tablecloths with four chairs around each ran behind her down both sides of the diner. Past those and along the outside wall were booths with worn red vinyl seats. Overhead pot lights cast a soft glow over the room. Above her and along the rest of the counter were drop pendant lights with red glass shades. Nice. Country cute.

While she ate, customers trickled in, filling nearly every table and booth. Only a handful of seats remained available at the counter. She needed to decide what to do for the night.

Bev dropped by and held up the coffeepot. “Refill, honey?”

“No thanks. I need to get home, but in this weather I’m not sure there’s a taxi or other means to get me there.”

“Where you headed, honey?”

“Wolf Road out off 191.”

“You’re going way out there?”

“Yes, but I don’t have a car. Do you know how I can get there?”

Bev looked over her head at a gentleman paying his bill at the small counter by the door. “Hey, Travis. You headed home?”

“It’ll be slow going in the snow, but yeah. Why?”

“This nice lady needs a ride out to Wolf Road. Can you take her on your way?”

“Well, now, it’s past my way, but I can certainly take the pretty lady where she needs to go.”

Ella eyed Bev with apprehension about leaving with a stranger. Especially one with unwashed hair, four days’ worth of beard stubble, and a rip down the front leg of his grease-stained Carhartts.

Bev patted her hand on the counter. “Don’t you worry none. He’s mostly harmless.”

“Come on now, Bev, you know I’ve been sweet-talking you for years.”

“It’s never worked with me, or any woman I know,” she shot back, laughing.

A few of the other customers barked out a laugh and a crude comment about Travis’s nonexistent love life. He smiled and took the good-natured ribbing in stride.

“Trust me, honey, he won’t bite. If you don’t go now, who knows how long it will take you to get there, what with the way the weather changes around here.”

Bev had a point. The rain had given way to a soft but steady snowfall. Pretty; Ella wished her sister was here to see it. They’d so loved the snow and coming to this part of the country. They’d sit in the huge living room window at the ranch and stare at it for hours, playing with their dolls or a game of chess. She’d loved to beat her sister at Chinese checkers. The memory made her eyes glass over. She blinked the tears away. Plenty of time to grieve later. Right now, she needed to get to the ranch and find out what her sister had been doing here.

“If you don’t mind, I’m happy to pay you for your trouble.”

“No trouble at all to drive a pretty lady wherever she wants to go.”

“Thank you. I really appreciate this.”

She gathered her belongings, paid her bill, leaving Bev a generous tip, and followed Travis out of the diner into the frosty weather. The sun had set and the snow fell against the backdrop of the dark night, highlighted by the diner and city lights. The snow quickly covered her hair and clothes. She shook as much off as she could before climbing into Travis’s truck cab. The smell of sweat, dirt, and manure, along with the stench of tobacco from the beer bottle in the cup holder filled with chewing tobacco spit, assaulted her nose. Her stomach lurched. She wrinkled her nose and cracked the window to let in some fresh air.

Travis slid behind the wheel and gave her a leering smile. She sat up straight and folded her hands in her lap, her bag and tote stuffed at her feet. She sighed out her relief when he pulled out of the parking lot onto the main road and headed out of town. Though the heater in the old truck worked, it barely took the edge off the crisp air coming in through the cracked-open window. She gave up the fresh air in favor of warmth, especially with her wet hair and feet.

She finger-combed the wet strands away from her face, trying to get the last of the ice out. Travis took his gaze from the road to roam it over her from head to foot.

“So, what brings you to these parts? You don’t look like you’re from around here. Where are you from?”

She wondered if he’d shut up and let her answer. Not that she wanted to, but if keeping him talking kept him from staring at her breasts and his eyes on the icy roads, she was all for chitchat.

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